The last drop? As the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report put it succinctly, ‘water pervades all aspects of human development’ (UNDP 2006: 2). Especially in Central Eurasia, which has many arid areas that require water resources for their survival, it plays a central role in political, economic and social processes (Kobori and Glantz 1998). These processes have been massively altered twice in recent memory by two geopolitical transformations, namely the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increased penetration of the military forces of the United States into the region following the events of 11 September 2001. Nevertheless, water remains crucial for sustainable development for two reasons. First, is the key ingredient for many economic processes, especially for rural development on which the region is heavily dependent (Brown and Lall 2006). Second, the allocation of water, as with all finite resources that are unevenly distributed across regions and nations, is an important factor in achieving peaceful relations between communities at various political and spatial scales (Wolf 2002). The goal of this edited volume is to investigate how these two driving forces interact, with a view to understanding the relationships between water, environmental security and sustainable rural development in Central Eurasia. The title of the international conference which resulted in this book was ‘The Last Drop?’. The choice of such a dramatic title reflected the organizers’ concerns related to two parallel developments in Central Eurasia. The first is the mounting and undeniable evidence that the region’s water resources, which have long been used extremely intensively, are pushed to the brink (Libert 2008). This, in turn, has resulted in the degradation of both natural and socioeconomic systems. The clearest example of how natural processes have been altered is the spectacular disappearance of the Aral Sea, which has shrunk down to a third of its size in a process that the Soviet leadership had to acknowledge as a case of ‘ecological catastrophe’ (Weinthal 2002: 5). While not as eye-catching, dramatic changes have also taken place in the region’s other sources of water that have undermined the integrity of Central Eurasia’s ecological systems. With the natural forces in disarray, the region’s irrigation network, whose integrity was also under threat because of changing political economic conditions, has also
suffered and is beginning to be increasingly inadequate in meeting the growing needs of its users. The aforementioned UN Report states that the collapse of the extensive irrigation network in the region ‘is now holding back human development and reinforcing poverty’ (UNDP 2006: 190). As water resources and irrigation systems come under stress, signs of conflict between and among the region’s water users have also begun to increase. On the one hand, tensions are developing within the boundaries of nation-states between different groups of users. Some of these conflicts are between upstream and downstream users regarding quantity and timing of water delivery. Others centre on plans by national governments to divert or control river systems for purposes of irrigation and hydroelectric power generation which disrupt traditional water use patterns and rights. On the other, and to a significant extent building on this tension, evidence of conflict between nation-states have been increasing as evidenced, among others, in the Amu Darya Basin and the Caspian Basin. If left unchecked, these water and other related environmental problems which have systemic roots, might threaten the creation of ‘secure democratic regimes and regional stability’ in the region (Sievers 2002: 358). Without a doubt, the two processes highlighted above remain just as troubling, if not more. However, as the chapters presented here demonstrate, the question mark need not be replaced with a full stop yet. The empirical evidence coming from various parts of Central Eurasia clearly demonstrates the existence of positive developments in a number of areas. Moreover, as the following sections of this introduction summarize, theoretical and conceptual development in water and environmental security studies show the weakness of overly deterministic approaches, especially when it comes to predicting the role of water in achieving sustainable and peaceful rural development in the region. What remains clear, however, is the significance of water, both as a resource and as a lens through which to apprehend the process of massive political, economic and social transition taking place in Central Eurasia.